The Weekly Machen
In their push toward France, the German Army crossed into neutral Belgian territory on August 4, 1914. This hostile act triggered the entrance of Great Britain into the European war as the UK was obligated to defend the integrity of Belgium under the Treaty of London. Despite the Belgian king’s determined stand, his military forces were swiftly defeated by the German onslaught and the country would remain under Berlin’s domination until November 1918.
Our roving reporter was sent to the scene in Folkestone, a coastal town and site of entry for Belgian refugees into south England. Despite its brevity, the article made it to front page of the Evening News. It bears an uncharacteristically terse and clipped cadence as if telegraphed from the field. Yet Machen still managed to infuse it with his unique style. A couple weeks after the printing of this report, Machen would start another conflagration with the publication of The Bowmen.
The following article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone & Sweester.
The Pitiful Army: In the Track of the Belgian Refugees.
September 11, 1914
There are certain portions of Charing Cross Station which are now mournfully distinguished by the word, “Refugiés,” in large black letters. And in one of these platform spaces I saw yesterday one of the saddest sights that a man could look on.
It was simply the heaped pile of baggage belonging to some of the Belgian refugees. There were a few sacks stuffed tight with goods; here and there were neatly corded bales. But by far the greatest part of this heap of stuff was composed of huge unwieldy bundles of every shape and all shapes and no shape.
Here stuck out one boot with a ravel of string pretending to keep it in position. Here was an enamelled saucepan; another jolt and it would drop loose. And here were lace curtains, torn from some once cheerful window and huddled in with all the rest.
And the homes where all these poor belongings once had their place are now ruins, with the marks of blood and fire upon them.
I took train to Folkestone from an adjacent platform, and when I got to that agreeable seaside town I found it still more given over to the French tongue than it had been the other day. Thus does a boarding-house announce its attractions on the Folkestone walls:—
PENDANT ET APRES LA GUERRE
POUR FRANCAIS, BELGES,
ET LES CITOYENS DES
But the poster that pleased me most, I think, was issued by the S.E.C.R., pressing the charms of Ramsgate on the exiles. At Ramsgate, they are informed they will find charming sands and a welcome of the most sympathetic sort; and if they will they may “Assister aux offices à l’abbaye bénédictine.” I find something singularly appropriate in the S.E.C.R. pointing the way to cloistered shades. S.E.C.R is a peaceful line, very remote from this hurrying, bustling age.
The refugees are still pouring into Folkestone. Day by day boats from Belgium and France bring them by thousands. The rich, the well-to-do, and the tolerably well-to-do can manage pretty well, though there is the money-changing difficulty even for them.
The Poor Belgians
But the others, the poor people who owned those sad bundles I had seen, the poorer still who had not even a bundle to call their own—what was being done for them?
1 found the answer at the Folkestone Branch of the War Refugees’ Committee, which is established at the Technical Institute.
“What do all those people on the first floor want?” I began.
“They want their money changed, and we do it for them. Some of them have come over with three, four, five thousand francs, and find themselves penniless! The banks have got tired of taking Belgian money. In my opinion, it’s a matter for the Government to look into.”
While the official answered my question he drew out half a dozen forms.
The bearer . . . . is a Belgian refugee to be sent to Charing Cross.
But all the while the little Belgian soldier was dancing with vehement impatience. He burst out into a speech which sounded like one long word. Translated—and much condensed—it was something like this:
The Work Goes On
And he flung out his arms in a magnificent gesture which was appeal, complaint, satire all at once. But long before he had finished his long word the official had arranged for a systematic list of Belgian soldiers in Folkestone to be drawn up, and he nodded assent to a young Belgian who wished to dump two suit-cases and a sheaf of umbrellas on the floor.
And so the work went on before my eyes. The Refugees Committee sitting at the Technical School really does everything that can be done for the poor victims of the barbarians. It has dormitories for men and for women, it has a kitchen and cooks food for them, it keeps an employment agency, and finds all the jobs it can find—hop-picking, electrical engineering, clerkships, waiters’ places.
Poor shipwrecked Belgians, on whom the horror of the deep waters has come; here you find a true harbour of refuge and kind pity after all your troubles.
Previous: Joy of London II
Next: My Visit to the “Trenches”
2 thoughts on “The Pitiful Army”
What a sequence of history occurred in Machen’s lifetime, from the Anglo-Zulu War, in which assegai-wielding Africans defeated the British at Isandhlwana. to the explosions of the atomic bombs.
For many people in his lifetime, “Arthur Machen” was a reporter’s name. Many of these readers might have had no idea that he would be famous for stories of supernatural horror.
I have only begun to sample the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Society website, thanks to a Wikipedia ‘External link’, but how delightful and admirable that they should have brought to the refugees’ attention that there was a Bendictine Abbey in Ramsgate – and a good ‘Machen touch’ to note this! (Sadly, I see a 2009 article by Shawn Tribe at the New Liturgical Movement website, about the Monks, “no longer able to meet the Abbey’s considerable running and maintenance costs”, voting to move after 148 years – but have not yet tracked down ‘the rest of the story’…)